They say fishmeal is good for roses. They say that it nurtures the plants, helping them to grow strong and tall, producing the most beautiful and exquisitely scented blooms year after year. If there is any truth in that and it’s not just another old wives tale, then all I can say is that the current owners of 12 Seabank Road must marvel at the magnificent display that their garden provides every year, little realizing how it came to be that way.
My story goes back to 1967 and to my aunt’s guesthouse in the seaside resort of Rhyl in North Wales. Long before the advent of cheap package holidays in the Spanish sun, Rhyl was one of those small seaside resorts with an affinity for the working man and his family, eager for a week away from the drudgery of a factory floor or the dangers of the pit face. My aunt and uncle had moved there a few years earlier after he’d been involved in a mining accident. He’d been caught between two underground railway cars carrying coal to the surface and was lucky to escape without serious injuries. As it was, he was told that he would never work as a miner again and should seek alternative employment.
Having enjoyed numerous holidays in Rhyl themselves (the National Union of Miners (NUM) owned a holiday camp there which, although bearing a striking resemblance to a prisoner-of-war camp, offered cheap holidays to its members), they decided to buy a guest house there. At the time that they moved, there was a rift between our two families and so we didn’t hear anything from them for quite some time. It wasn’t until my grandmother’s funeral in 1964 that my mother and my uncle finally buried the hatchet and started speaking to each other again. They decided that life was too short for siblings to remain angry and estranged from each other and started making plans to spend more time together. As my parents had already made plans for that summer’s holiday, it was agreed that we would go and stay with them the following summer. Sadly, their fears about life being too short proved prophetic and my uncle collapsed and died of a heart attack the following January. Instead of being a celebration of family reconciliation, our holiday that year was one of consolation for my grieving aunt.
Being so young (I was only four or five years old at the time), I remember little of that first holiday in Rhyl or of the holidays that followed (for that first holiday was viewed so successful and everyone enjoyed themselves so much that it became an annual tradition). Those things that I do remember, I generally visualize as golden-hued snippets that stand out from the surrounding haze. They tend to be without beginnings or endings, covering routine acts that were repeated on a daily basis and that differed from my daily pre-school schedule at home. One thing I do remember (even down to the way the damp, salty air smelled as it blew in off the sea and stung my face) was the early morning walk with my Dad to get the daily newspaper. Our route used to take us through the nearby fun fair and along the sea front and the sight of all those deserted fairground rides and row upon row of slot machines never failed to excite me.
I always loved the chance to be alone with my Dad. At that time, he was working away from home a lot and I would nearly always be in bed by the time he got in at night. He used to love that time too and never missed an opportunity to spoil me. You could guarantee that by the end of our two-week holiday, he had bought me every single comic book special that was published for the summer. If I close my eyes now, I can see all their covers ('The Beano', 'Dandy', 'TV Comic', 'Beezer', 'Topper', 'Whizzer and Chips', 'Valiant', etc.), all of them showing their main cartoon characters indulging in summer fun such as eating enormous ice creams or building the perfect sandcastle.
As I said earlier, the annual summer trek to North Wales quickly became a Ford family tradition. My oldest brother David, having already reached the magical age of sixteen when this custom started, was allowed to stay at home and fend for himself. My mother would spend the whole two weeks worrying (as is the habit of many mothers, I now understand) whether he would burn the house down or, at the very least, hold all night orgies or seances there. I never was quite sure which she regarded as the worse of the two evils. Luckily, she’d covered all eventualities by asking our next-door neighbors to keep an eye on him, which allowed her to focus all of her considerable energies on my middle brother, John.
John was twelve years old when we first started staying with my aunt and I guess his protestations at accompanying us were to become as much a part of the annual tradition as the holiday itself. These objections carried on for the next three or four years before his wish to stay at home was finally granted (maybe it took my mother that long to get our neighbors to agree to keeping an eye on John as well). I don’t really remember the heated discussions on the subject but I do remember my parents struggling to find family activities that would keep both a small child and a teenager amused. In order to imagine how difficult that was, you have to forget the video arcades and the tropical sun centers of today, complete with artificial wave machines and the promise of an all-over tan whatever the weather outdoors. Instead, you have to think back to the allure of endless donkey rides on the (almost) golden sands, countless risqué postcards recycling the same cliched jokes almost everywhere you turned and the highlight of the promenade, the six-foot rotating Dalek which you could clamber into, put on a metallic voice and cry "Exterminate… Exterminate!" to your hearts content. Hey, it worked for me but then you have to remember that I was four or five at the time, not fast approaching my teens like my brother.
Set against that background, I can now understand why my father hit upon the idea of taking John out on a daylong fishing trip at sea. It must have seemed such a good idea at the time; even if they didn’t catch any fish, they’d get to spend some time together and get away from the womenfolk. You have to remember that this was still before long-distance calls were seen as anything but a luxury or a bearer of ill tidings. These two weeks were the only time that they really saw each other and they had a whole year's worth of gossiping to catch up with (and did so with an impressive level of dedication and devotion to the task at hand).
So it was then that my Dad went down to the little jetty by the pier, walked up to the first boat offering fishing trips (he never really was one for shopping around for the best deal, he was more of the 'whatever was easiest' type) and signed John and himself up for the following day’s junket. As he paid for the tickets, I remember crying those tears of frustration and indignation that come so easily to small children. Even though I had no concept of what an all-day fishing trip entailed, being excluded on the grounds of being "too small" automatically made it one of the most exciting activities I could imagine.
While my tears had subsided by the following morning, the resentment at being left behind hadn’t; it was a very sulky little boy who begrudgingly stirred from his sleep to kiss them goodbye and wish them luck. As it was still dark when they left the house, I immediately turned over and went back to sleep. I can remember being very confused when I woke up again later because, as far as I was concerned, they had been away all night and should have already returned, weighed down with their glittering spoils and tall stories. I couldn’t believe it when my aunt laughed and said that they wouldn’t be back until late in the afternoon. I was convinced that she must have got it wrong and went running to my Mum, hoping she’d have the answer that I wanted to hear. She only confirmed what my aunt had said and started to talk about all the fun things we were going to do that day. None of them sounded quite as much fun as a fishing trip (not even the promise of a ride in my favorite Dalek) and I returned to sulking, accompanied by an extended period of heavy-duty clock watching.
I was incapable of enjoying myself that day, no matter how my Mum and aunt tried to cheer me up. First of all, they let me help them make the breakfast. For someone who was usually steered well clear of all things breakable, hot or sharp (especially those objects that qualified on more than one count), it should have been heavenly to be allowed to fry eggs, cut bread and make a pot of tea. As it was, I managed to dolefully carry out my duties "nursing a face like a wet week-end", as my aunt put it.
After breakfast, we walked into Rhyl to do some shopping. All of my favorite shops (the newsagent with its promise of new comic books, the toyshop with its collection of cheap and cheerful plastic playthings, and the little confectioners with its delicious sausage rolls and its selection of fresh cream cakes) were suddenly at my disposal, mine to peruse indulgently. Instead, I declined, saying that I wasn’t really bothered about any of them. It was a lie, of course, and one that only seemed to make me suffer (my refusal didn’t stop them both buying the largest chocolate eclairs I’d ever set my eyes on).
Having turned down the opportunity to enjoy my favorite kind of shops, I had to suffer being dragged around those that my Mum and aunt enjoyed (clothes shops, furniture shops, etc.). I also had to endure the indignity of my aunt introducing me to everyone she knew as her "cute little nephew". More often than not, this was accompanied by a pinch to one of my chubby little cheeks, the result being that my face was soon positively glowing. After what seemed like an age, we finally returned to the guesthouse for our lunch. I don’t recall what we ate but I do remember that they’d taken me at my word and had not bought a chocolate éclair for me. I wanted to cry, "That’s not fair!" but somehow I knew this would be seen as a confession of my own stubbornness and so I kept quiet.
The hands on the clock really did move in slow motion as I waited for 3pm to come around. Finally, my impatience (particularly my stuck record of "Is it time yet?") got the better of everybody and so we set off for the pier early. In my child’s mind, I think I expected large crowds of women to be waiting at the jetty to give their men-folk a hero’s welcome. As it was, it was just the three of us and a couple of disinterested looking seagulls who watched and waited until the small fishing boat came bobbing into site.
At my aunt’s mention of "my young eyes being so much better than hers", I strained to make out Dad and my brother amongst the men lined up against the side of the boat. Without exception, the faces of the returning fishermen seemed reddened and sore from the sun and the salt spray. The threat of skin cancer wasn’t really known then but even if it had been, I expect that 'real men' probably wouldn’t have used high SPF sun creams. At last, I spotted them. My Dad was at one end of the boat and John was at the other, physically as far away as possible. I was still pondering this as the boat came in closer and I noticed that Dad wasn’t wearing his shirt. My mum and my aunt didn’t believe me when I told them, they said that I must have been looking at the wrong person. I looked again and this time I could clearly see just his string vest (an interesting footnote worthy of mention is the surreal suntan that this created, all tiny red and white checks like a rustic French tablecloth).
As John came into view, I could see he was wearing an embarrassed scowl, as if he wanted to be anywhere else in the world right then, rather than on that fishing boat with my Dad. As the boat came closer still, I could see that my Dad was holding a large bundle in his arms which was reminiscent of something that a tramp or hobo might attach to a stick and carry over his shoulder. The difference about this particular bundle and anything that might be seen being carried by Charlie Chaplin's little tramp was that it was about 10 times bigger and looked suspiciously like the shirt that he'd been wearing when they'd left the guest house that morning.
The small boat edged its way to the dock and ropes were quickly secured. As our very own weary warriors walked across the rickety planks to dry land, the looks on their faces couldn't have been any more different. My Dad's face was one big beaming smile as he reveled in his role of family provider. Meanwhile, John's face was going through those contortions that ten years later would be summed up in t-shirts emblazoned with "I'm not with this idiot!"
Later, as we all walked back to Seabank Road (I say 'we' but in truth, it was John trailing about 20 feet behind the rest of us), we got the full tale of their epic trip. Apparently, after heading out to sea for 30 minutes or so, the skipper of the boat had cut the engine and dropped anchor. They were rod fishing for mackerel and each line had six or so hooks connected to it. As they started to fish, they very carefully baited every single hook. Within minutes they realized that they were directly over a huge shoal because everyone was pulling up their lines to find shiny and slithery mackerel on every single hook.
It wasn't long before they ran out of bait but they found that they didn't appear to need it as the mackerel seemed to be intent on carrying out a mass suicide pact by attaching themselves to empty hooks. This in itself led to the next challenge as they realized that they were quickly running out of places to put the freshly caught fish. They'd been using plastic buckets to hold them temporarily but these were soon filled and it dawned on them that they hadn't brought anything with them to carry their catch home in. It was at this point that Dad came up with the bright idea of John taking off his shirt so they could fashion a makeshift sack from it. John's opinion was that this wasn't such a bright idea (he didn't want the indignity of having to carry a shirt full of fish around) and so Dad was left with no choice but to use his own shirt.
Once we got back to the safety of the guest house (ignoring the puzzled and bemused looks from passers-by), we all went into the kitchen and watched as Dad unfastened his bundle letting the fish drop into the sink. I'm sure that I would be impressed today with the size of their catch (maybe 50 or 60 fish) but back then I was totally and utterly awestruck. Reality cut in at that point when my Mum asked my Dad what exactly he planned to do with all those fish. He replied that we'd eat them of course. It was at that point that we very quickly determined that no one actually liked mackerel or intended to try it. My Dad stubbornly (a family trait that I inherited in spades) said that he would have some for dinner that night and I, wanting to do my bit to support my Dad, said that I would too.
OK, two fish down, only fifty-eight to go! In what was probably a moment of desperation, my Dad suggested that maybe the neighbors would appreciate some nice fresh mackerel. I was duly given the job of visiting the surrounding guesthouses, armed with a selection of mackerel and a mission to disperse them as widely possible. Unfortunately, everyone I visited either loathed mackerel with a passion or had guests staying with them who had been on the same fishing trip and so had their very own share of the sea's bounty already.
I guess by now you know what happened to the remaining mackerel. Under cover of darkness (well, would you have wanted to be seen?), a large hole was dug in the rose bed and the entire catch was tipped in and covered over quickly. My Dad and I did our best to enjoy our mackerel dinner but neither of us was quite that good at acting and so they too were consigned to the rose bed.
By the time the next summer came around, my aunt had sold the guesthouse and moved into a bungalow a few miles away. I seem to remember John going with us one more time but steadfastly refusing to go fishing with my Dad again. Over the years (I carried on the tradition until I was fourteen or fifteen), we'd drive past Seabank Road occasionally and one or more of us would burst out laughing at the thought of that fishing trip. On probably the last holiday that I had with my parents, I did walk down Seabank Road again. Time hadn't been kind to the houses; it was now the mid-70s many of them stood empty and boarded up, even at the height of the season. I remember being very sad as it seemed to be the end of an era for both Rhyl and myself. I do have to say, though… one of the houses in particular had a damn fine display of roses!
© Robert Ford 1997-99